Unassumingly tucked away at the corner of the Lone Tree Way and Golf Course Road commercial complex, Zacks is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill coffee shop. That's just the way husband and wife team Greg and Margunn Williams like it. The Antioch couple wanted to make Zacks different from Starbucks and other big corporate chains that were springing up in strip malls.
"We envisaged Zacks to be more than just a place that makes and sells coffee," explained Norwegian-born Margunn. "We wanted to create a cozy neighborhood-style cafe with local character and appeal, similar to the ones that you find in Berkeley."
Homey, organic and high-tech, Zacks' inviting laid-back interior design, which comes complete with a comfy sofa and coffee table and a flat-panel TV perched on warm, burnt-sienna-washed walls, certainly has the atmosphere of a family living room more than a commercial business. There's also an outdoor seating area that offers cool breezes and fabulous sunset views of Mount Diablo.
"Zacks is a perfect place to kick back, relax and soak up a great view while sipping a great cup of coffee or tea," said Margunn.
Newspapers and magazines are on hand to let customers catch up on recent events. There's also free wi-fi (wireless Internet) access for workaholics and road warriors to catch up on e-mails.
But Zacks' real forte is espresso, a thick, strong Italian coffee prepared using steam, and lots of it. The store offers over a dozen varieties of classic espressos and delicious frothy macchiato, latte and cappuccino blends made from international beans with intriguing names like Costa Rica Monte Crisol, Latte Cubano, Vietnamese Cacao Macchiato, Guatemala Vista Hermosa and Sumatra Gayoland.
Prices starting at $1.85 for traditional espresso shots and $3.35 for specialty blends. "It's the quality of our espresso that sets us apart from the rest," said Margunn.
A popular choice is "Milky Way," an espresso mixed with chocolate, caramel and steamed milk. Other specialty drinks include the City Capp (similar to a frappucino), Nutty Irishman (a two-ounce espresso shooter topped with whipped cream) and Symphony in C (a cinnamon, caramel, and cacao-flavored cappuccino).
"Because all of our drinks are hand-crafted and made to order, we can pretty much ice or blend any drink on our menu," said Margunn. "And if we don't have it on the menu we'll make it the way you want it. It's all part of the service."
Zacks takes its coffeemaking very seriously, treating it like a culinary art form. Great care and detail is taken in the custom preparation of every cup, right down to the size and shape of the real ceramic cups.
"There's no pressing of buttons here. Every coffee is hand-made to get the best quality and taste. And all of our ingredients are 100 percent organic, including the milk," Margunn said. "The way our coffee is personally ground, prepared and artistically presented just makes it tastes that much better. Plus there's something about wrapping your hands around a real ceramic coffee cup."
If leaves are more to your taste than beans, Zacks offers a variety of organic teas with exotic sounding names like Jade Green, Organic Serene and Golden Yunnan, and cool, freshly blended fruit smoothies.
If you'd like something to wash down with all of those beverages, the cafe also offers an assortment of biscotti, freshly baked cakes, sandwiches, salads and light breakfast bagels and croissants - all organic, of course.
Zacks' personalized touch is attracting local coffee lovers, who see it as a refreshing change from the coffee norm.
"We prefer Zacks over other coffee shops in the area because of the higher quality of coffee and teas served, the more comfortable atmosphere and the friendly service the employees provide," said Brenda Barros and Gabe Norton from Brentwood.
"I come to Zacks for the great espressos and the great service," said Antioch resident Yossef Azim. "Other coffee houses need to learn how to run their shops like Zacks."
The free wi-fi access is a big draw for Benjie Galvez, a regular customer from Antioch, who said, "It's a great place to do work on my PowerBook."
It's not just the homey atmosphere and great espresso that makes Zacks different; it also sells "coffee with a healthy conscience."
"The beans we use are roasted locally in Santa Clara by the Barefoot Coffee Roasters, which was recently voted one of the top four best boutique coffee makers in the entire country by Food and Wine Magazine," said Margunn. "And because Barefoot only deals with fair-trade farmers who follow environmentally friendly farming practices and don't use artificial pesticides, we get our hands on the best quality and tasting beans."
It also means cutting out greedy corporate middlemen, she said, adding, "We pay fair dollar to coffee farmers for top-quality beans, which ensures they have decent working and living conditions for their families."
Margunn believes that knowing your espresso from your cappuccino or macchiato is as important as knowing your merlot from your cabernet sauvignon.
"Coffee is much like wine. It's a tasty art form. We like to talk intelligently about coffee to our customers on choice," she said, pointing to display cards that explain the flavor and body of each roast and blend, and leaflets that get down to the nitty-gritty of coffee bean growing, cultivation and processing. "We're constantly adding new flavors and blends and encourage our customers to taste new ones."
Zacks certainly has a family-run business look and feel. The Williams moved to Antioch in 1999 with their three children, Jacob, 6, Jonas, 4, and Sydney, 2. "Zacks is the name of our fourth child," Margunn quips.
The cafe, which opened its doors in April and is the couple's first local business venture, is the brainchild of Greg, who decided to set up the business after working for 11 years for Coca Cola.
Zacks is located on 4609 Golf Course Rd. and is open seven days a week. It's currently running a special commuter promotion, offering drivers free to-go coffee from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Mondays to help perk up their morning grind.
An official grand opening is planned for July 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"There will be live music, face painting for the kids and snacks. And, of course, lots of free cappuccinos," said Margunn.